Make It Last All Night

Neil Gaiman is in the news again.  Some concatenation of dullards is trying to raise half a million dollars for charity, in exchange for which the dreamer of dreams and seller of stories will – and, I am not, I can assure you, making this up, though I wish I were – read the entire menu of a casual dining chain restaurant out loud.  This is the sort of thing I absolutely despise about nerd culture:  the mindless adoration of cult figures, the desire to have people do random things and praise them for it regardless of whether it was worth doing, the pop-culture pseudo-irony, the liking things for the sake of liking them, the self-adoration, the vague sneering condescension, the awesome of it all.

Worse still, it’s wrapped up in what is otherwise an unimpeachable charity, making anyone who dares criticize it look like a mean old creep who wants immigrants to drown in the ocean.  This is almost certainly by design, but it begs so many questions:  why can’t the nerds just donate to a refugee charity on their own without having to be rewarded with some variant of epic ninja bacon?  Why can’t Gaiman, who is a multi-millionaire, just donate the half-mil himself?  Why the snide recitation of a diner menu?  Why can’t he be bothered to write something new for the occasion, or at the very least, as a multiple best-selling author with a half-dozen classic and geek-friendly works under his belt, at least read from something people already know and like, instead of gurning and putting on funny voices while chewing his way through the appetizer selections?  This is, after all, the man who built his reputation around endless blathering about the transformative power of storytelling.  And this is the task we’ve set for him?

Anyway, what Gaiman should be in the news for is the new adaptation of his 1999 novel American Gods.  Debuting on the little-watched Starz channel, which no doubt saw a huge spike in temporary subscriptions that will expire when it does, the show, featuring at least the partial participation of Gaiman himself, is clearly designed to be this year’s big prestige TV event, and it just might succeed – although, if it does, it will be largely in spite of itself.  Much like Preacher, this year’s other high-profile TV adaptation of a beloved ‘90s property by a well-known comics author, American Gods is frequently gorgeous, extremely evocative, highly daring, occasionally enthralling, and ambitious as hell.  It is also, like Preacher, frustratingly cast, often plodding, haltingly paced, sometimes hokey, and as likely to confuse viewers as it is to entertain them.  (The primary advantage it seems to have is that Starz somehow managed to cough up a bigger special effects budget than AMC, or at least a more convincing one.)

I have my problems with Gaiman as a writer, which aren’t really worth going into here, but one of the issues with American Gods (a novel I really enjoyed for the most part) is that, as written text, it rewards patience in the reader – a quality which is likely to only frustrate TV viewers, who are more used to quick payoffs. This is evident in the pace of the series, which has already made some revelations about its characters that took far longer in the book.  This is probably for the best, given that it already seems a bit torpid in delivering the exposition; American Gods is awfully talky, and if it didn’t have the Game of Thrones-like ability to combine all this narrative background with shitloads of sex (if you’ve complained that there aren’t enough large, fully erect penises on television, this show is definitely for you), it would be even worse.  What was intriguing as unpacked by Gaiman’s best prose in the book is just frustrating and annoying on screen.

That said, there’s probably no better person to have adapted American Gods for the screen than Bryan Fuller.  Late of Hannibal, he’s proven time and again that he’s got a gift for exactly what this show needs:  over-the-top sex, extremely well-crafted set design, characters that seem deep and secretive, and gobs of Grand Guignol violence and sensuality.  Crucially, he’s also able to combine lots of scene-setting yackety-yack with visuals so dynamic that they keep you engaged (and stop you from noticing that the dialogue is actually pretty boring).  When Fuller really gets his hooks into a scene, like the visit to Chicago to meet the notorious Czernobog and his sisters, or the first appearance of the African spider-god Mr. Nancy (beautifully played by Orlando Jones), it can be magical.  But when he’s not quite in it, it can be equally trying.

Keeping fanboys satisfied is clearly a concern here, and the series hasn’t deviated much from the series so far.  This can be dismaying as often as it’s praiseworthy; Gaiman is not great at matters sexual and racial, and some moments (some awkward sex talk after the death of the main character’s wife, and a regrettable lynching some time afterwards) stick out like a bruised thumb.  The book is inevitably dated, and this can lead to some odd moments:  the removal of cell phones from the narrative is done in a particularly ham-handed way, while on the other hand, the visit of the goddess Media in the form of a bank of high-definition TVs playing I Love Lucy works like a charm.  This is less because it makes any surface sense (Lucille Ball isn’t likely to resonate much with a contemporary African-American man in his late 20s) than because of the charming and game performance of Gillian Anderson.

This brings us, of course, to Ricky Whittle.  The British actor who plays American Gods’ protagonist, Shadow Moon, is, to be frank, a terrible choice.  A barely animated meathead whose two facial expressions are ‘grim fortitude’ and ‘wry annoyance’, he’s little more than a well-constructed body getting put through the wringer against veteran performers who can act rings around him.  (It’s particularly rough that he has to spend so much of the series acting off of Ian McShane as Mr. Wednesday; McShane has become one of television’s most gifted actors, and watching him do scenes with Whittle is like watching Serena Williams face off against a can of paint.)  This isn’t a huge deviation from the book, where Shadow Moon is, to put it kindly, a bit of a cipher, but it’s downright deadly in prestige television for your main character to come across as a highly polished block of wood.

Still, it’s early in the series, and as choppy as the storytelling can be at times, Fuller’s sure conception of some of the most crucial moments, as well as the general tone and feel of the series, will keep me tuned in until the end.  It’s a ride that may be taking a slow route to nowhere, but at least so far there’s some pretty beautiful scenery along the way.

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